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Politicians Aren't Like Us and That's Bad (Part I)
The first in a short, two-part (maybe three-part) series on the divide between the people who set the rules and those of us who have to live with the results.
I’m out of town this week visiting an undisclosed, mountainous, West Coast province. I’ve left Ontario for a week for work and to catch up with some friends ahead of a busy writing summer. So, this is going to be a short piece. Next week, I’m going to write a longer entry on the demographics, backgrounds, and ideological commitments of legislators in Canada and the U.S. But first, I wanted to check in with a reminder that politicians aren’t like us and that’s bad.
Last week, while I waited in the scorching Ottawa heat for a bus that was egregiously late, I tweeted “Every time a bus or train is late, a local politician who could have done something about better transit should have to pay a fine out of their own pocket.” Then I added “Fines doubled in winter.” In the past, (I don’t remember when because time is meaningless now), I made a similar semi-facetious argument that politicians with backyards shouldn’t get to vote on drinking in parks (I’m looking at you, Toronto).
In undergrad, I had a political science prof who used to say that “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” That’s to say one’s principles (and preferences) are often products of one’s position in the world and one’s interests. Even when we aren’t talking about obvious, direct material interests, politicians have their perspectives shaped by the class or milieu in which they operate and from which they come. Conceptions of what counts as “common sense” or “rationality” are shaped by this positionality—that’s part of the reason why disagreement is common and often difficult to navigate, since we talk past one another at the most basic level. Common sense, rationality, and the preferences, reasons, and perspectives are shaped by the world. They’re in tension between individuals and groups depending on history and circumstance. And as the philosopher Thomas Nagel puts it, there’s no view from nowhere.
When it comes to politicians, the divide between where they sit and where different people they legislate for sit is important. Maybe you think governing politicians govern for everyone, but they don’t. They can’t, no matter what they say. Sometimes we have irreconcilable and incompatible material and socio-cultural preferences, and politicians tend to side with some sets of people over others. “I may be from Party X, but now that I’ve won, I’m here to govern for everyone” is objectively, entirely, and hopelessly bull-plop.
It matters who our politicians are and where they come from. Those factors will shape who gets what, when, and how (as the old definition of politics goes). Next week, I’ll dig into what this distribution looks like in Canada and the U.S. And if there’s interest, the following week I’ll get into what we can do to improve representation across social class and other groups.
Until then, if you need me, I’ll be writing in the shadows of mountains.